Seven Lessons in Witnessing the Migrant Caravan
When we see shocking images come across our newsfeed, it’s easy to become numb or to engage with the speed and shallowness of a click or a share. But what we are witnessing unfold at the San Ysidro port of entry deserves deeper attention.
As I and other faith leaders head to San Diego on December 10th, International Human Rights Day, to join the march called for by the American Friends Service Committee, here are some critical lessons made clear in witnessing the migrant caravan.
- There is Room On this Planet for All of Us
First and foremost, we have to combat the lie of scarcity.
Whether we call it God’s abundance or the abundance of the earth, this planet is our home and there is room for all of us. We are living during the most abundant time in human history. Yet it is also an era of extreme inequality in how this abundance is shared and distributed.
Today, in the United States, two cities are offering up to $5.5 billion dollars to entice the headquarters of a man so rich that he says "the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel.”
Meanwhile, here on Earth, we are told there’s not enough to pay workers well, not enough to help a mother and child seeking asylum.
Scarcity is a lie that instills fear. It makes enemies of people struggling to survive while the wealthy amass untold fortunes from an abundance that could otherwise unlock possibility and opportunity for all.
- Policy Decisions Made Out of Fear and Scarcity Will Never Solve the Challenges of the World
When we are fearful, we shut down and become defensive. When we are rooted in love, we respond with confidence and generosity. When we are fearful, we buy into a logic of violence that asks us to justify tear gassing families. When we are compassionate, our humanity calls us to side with the suffering.
Fear builds walls where love would tear them down.
In the case of the migrant caravan, allowing fear to win prevents us from winning solutions. A wall cannot answer human need. An ice cold room in a detention center cell is not a solution to the violence causing people to flee their homes.
- People Have a Right to Migrate and Move
The UN explains:
“Since the earliest times, humanity has been on the move. Some people move in search of labour or economic opportunities, to join family, or to study. Others move to escape conflict, persecution, terrorism, or human rights violations. Still others move in response to the adverse effects of climate change, natural disasters, or other environmental factors.”
In my own life, I’ve lived in St. Louis, MO, Berkeley, CA, Youngstown, OH, Phoenix, AZ, and now Boston, MA, to name a few. Each move was for different reasons and each crossed state borders. Migration is a part of my story as it is a true part of the human condition.
Whereas my moves were of my own volition, forced migration is a phenomenon becoming more and more common.
- A Humanitarian Crisis Demands a Humanitarian Response
What is unfolding at the US border is a humanitarian crisis.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear. In Article 14, the world body proclaims, “Every person has a right to seek asylum from persecution” To deny this is to turn our backs on human rights.
There must be a legal process in place for asylum seekers, not a militarized one. This requires adequate lawyers, judges, and social services to greet, assess, and assist people who need to move for various reasons.
- If We Don’t Want a Refugee Crisis, We Must Change Our Foreign Policy and Address Climate Change
We have to address the causes of migration. The refugee crisis around the globe is not an issue in itself, it is a consequence of war, economic inequity, and climate change.
Honduras, where many of those seeking asylum are from, is an example of what happens when all three collide. It’s not a coincidence that years after the US supported the overthrow of a democratically elected President and supported a dictator who turned the military against the people that we now witness thousands in exodus from danger and instability.
Such political instability is increasingly accented and made worse by environmental instability as well. World leaders’ refusal to take the constant warnings from scientists about the tipping point of climate change will mean that many of us have to move.
Within the US, cities like Chicago are predicted to get as hot as cities like Phoenix in the next 40 years. In addition, people fleeing political repression, super storms and man-made disasters are expected to create up to one million climate refugees each year.
Migration will be one of the defining challenges of our generation. We must prepare for it with creativity and ingenuity based in a reverence for life.
- When Countries Close Their Borders, The Cost is Human Lives
We have seen moments similar to this before when refugees knocked at the door of the United States with danger behind them and the promise of safety on the other side only to find the doors locked.
We lift up the moments when we’ve lived up to our ideals but there have also been moments when we dramatically failed. Millions of us have read Anne Frank’s autobiography written from an attic in hiding from Nazi occupation. But many of us are unaware that Anne’s father made multiple attempts to secure safe passage to the United States only to be turned away by an “America First” policy. 900 Jewish refugees fled to the western hemisphere on the SS St. Louis only to have the US, Cuba, and Canada deny them entry and turn them back to Europe where at least a quarter of the passengers were killed in Nazi concentration camps.
Instead of repeating the legacy of the anti-semitism, isolationism, and restrictive immigration policies that turned refugees away, we can embrace the example of two Unitarian Universalists, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, who saw people in need and made it their mission to help. Their multiple trips to Europe to help hundreds of Jews and intellectuals escape Nazi persecution is the focus of Ken Burn’s documentary, The Sharp’s War.
Now is a different moment and the spectre refugees are facing is a different threat but that doesn’t mean the stakes are not life or death for the families in the caravan.
We must choose life. We must choose the moral responsibility to help those in need, to welcome the migrant, to create safe harbor for those feeling violence, persecution and disaster. We must understand that we will be asked by our grandchildren how we acted, what we did, how we responded in the midst of this humanitarian crisis.
- We Have to Learn to Welcome
In the Spring when the first caravan of the year arrived, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Side With Love campaign echoed the call put out by Showing Up for Racial Justice: As Trump closes his doors, we open our own. It was based on the belief that we are still a country of people that helps others, that there are more people ready to help a neighbor in need than those cheering on the President’s cruelty.
As a result of that call, dozens of families and transgender women were able to shorten their time in detention and find welcoming homes and supportive communities as they plead their case for asylum in the courts. Others, like Roxsana Hernandez, were not as fortunate. Roxsana had a sponsor, someone who had a warm bed and a place at their table ready to welcome her. But instead of releasing her, guards at the detention center where she was held needlessly kept her incarcerated, allegedly beat her, and denied her medical care until she died supposedly of cardiac arrest at age 33.
Right now, in this moment in the United States, we have a choice. That choice is between a Culture of Cruelty that has been growing in rhetoric and policy throughout the country, or reclaiming the example of a culture of welcome that countless families across our country offer when they open their homes to refugees.
Welcome can take many forms. It is the culture and system we develop to welcome refugees at the border and in our homes. It is the deliberate acts of setting out water in barren deserts in defiance of Border Patrol persecution. It is organizing people to make detention visits and accompany people to immigration hearings. It is a hospitality program for the homeless in our churches or a local campaign to expand sanctuary in our cities. It is a donation of supplies and travel funds for refugees or a challenge to the biased policing they’re likely to face when they are offered the opportunity to settle in one of our towns.
The people who seek safety and a future in the US changes over time. Our immigration policy does not in any way define them. How we respond to people in need, whether it’s with cruelty or welcome, has everything to do with how we define ourselves.